Date: November 16th, 2015
Band Link: http://www.pilofficial.com
Three days after the massacre at the Bataclan music hall in Paris, I went to see Public Image Ltd. in the heart of Times Square. It wasn’t my first concert after the terrorist attack – I went to a ska show (Rude Boy George, Mustard Plug) that Friday night, though in a zombified state. I also had tickets for GWAR that Sunday, but the idea of getting sprayed with (fake) blood at a concert venue had lost its appeal.
Violence happens every day around the world, and the “empathy backlash” has already begun. Many on social media have rightfully yet somewhat artlessly pointed out that empathy from the West is unevenly distributed and can lack perspective. I’ve been pondering my own feelings on why the Paris attacks hit so close to home. Is it because it’s easier to identify with “Western” victims, or that I’m a frequent traveler to Paris, a city I love, or that I view Paris as a historic symbol of liberty and equality?
What bothers me most, I think, are where the slaughters took place. Attacks on restaurants, sport stadiums, and concert halls, where defenseless people of all walks of life congregate simply to enjoy themselves over shared interests, reveal a nihilism so deep, so unattached from morals, emotions, and humanity, it’s painful to fathom. It is hard, unbearable even, for rational people to contemplate something so irrational.
It was with these thoughts that I went to see the former Johnny Rotten, who, in my teen years, I would equate with my ideas of nihilism. Post-Sex Pistols, John Lydon’s band, Public Image Ltd., was, to me, anti-everything: anti-love, anti-religion, anti-government, anti-capitalism, and, in a rejection of his own Rotten image, anti-punk. With unrelenting repetitive beats, dark bass lines, and what sounded like howls in the void, PiL was one of the most post-modern band of the post-punk scene, and on the heels of two excellent comeback albums, continues to be one of the least compromising.
PiL came on without an opener and without any pomp, and played without break for over two hours. Lydon, 59, dressed like a prison escapee, stood in front of a sheet music stand like a pulpit, and performed as if conducting a twisted sermon. The music was mesmerizing. Some songs seemed to go on for 10-15 minutes as the bass and drums lines steadily played trance-like rhythms and guitar notes swirled.
This laid the backdrop for Lydon, who exuded anger and defiance in a way that was artistic, genuine, and even dignified – a far cry from metal bands I’ve seen recently whose angry sounds are simple posturing. (Lydon also made digs at bands that have cancelled their shows in response to the terror attacks.) Through plosive snarls and wails, Lydon connected disjointed and enigmatic words and phrases into angular poetry. There are parallels to Bjork, who exists as a vessel to channel raw emotion through music and art (both Lydon and Bjork also inexplicably roll their R’s). But where Bjork’s power comes from a place of vulnerability, Lydon’s is consistent sputtering rage. Last night’s performance of “Religion,” for instance, was a study in cathartic fury – a small eternity of Lydon speaking in different voices as he took down religious hypocrisy.
PiL played other favorites like “This Is Not a Love Song,” “Death Disco,” “The Body,” and “Warrior,” but didn’t stray far from their strong and blistering new album, which elicited no complaints. They ended their set with album closer “Shoom,” which has the chorus: “What the world needs now / is another/ fuck off!” That is as nihilistic as they get, but really, is it nihilism or exasperation mixed with acerbic humor?
Nihilism states that life is meaningless and therefore without value. That is why it is unfathomably easy for nihilists, such as the Paris terrorists, to resort to violence and murder. John Lydon and PiL might reject certain institutions, but, as I have to chastise my younger self, they are not nihilists. They have a message, a belief, that is reflected throughout their career but clearly stated in their encore song “Rise”: Anger is an energy.
In one his books, Lydon retells the story of how “Rise” was written in reaction to news reports of torture under South African apartheid. He writes about the lyric:
“It’s saying, ‘There’s always hope,’ and you that you don’t always have to resort to violence to resolve an issue. Anger doesn’t necessarily equate directly to violence. Violence very rarely resolves anything. In South Africa, they eventually found a relatively peaceful way out. Using that supposedly negative energy called anger, it can take just one positive move to change things for the better.”
Nihilism signifies nothingness and changes nothing. “Anger is an energy” is not a call to violence, but a call to embrace anger and channel it creatively. That is the real message of punk, that sound and fury can be significant, that meaningful anger can be a salve if not a solution to meaningless violence.